The paneed rabbit appetizer at Sabine River Cafe looked like a plate of McNuggets, but the white meat was sweeter and lighter than chicken breast. It came with a little side dish of creamy creole mustard dipping sauce. I could have eaten three or four orders by myself.
The fried bunny bits were so moist and tasty, I asked myself why there weren't more rabbit dishes in Houston restaurants. Of course, I had to order Sabine River Cafe's other cottontail concoction, a rabbit and andouille pasta. And my question was quickly answered.
The penne pasta was tossed in a spicy cream sauce with lots of andouille. Cream, smoke and pepper completely coated my mouth as I ate. It was a sensational blend of bold tastes, but it completely overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the rabbit. Chicken is a canvas for other flavors, but rabbit tends to disappear in the mix.
On my first visit, my dining companion got pecan-crusted fried chicken, a flattened breast covered with a pecan coating and fried. It came covered with a bright-white jalapeño cream gravy that made it look like a chicken-fried steak. The pecan coating was wonderfully crunchy, and the chicken breast was moist. It wasn't your standard fried chicken, but it tasted terrific.
The sides I sampled included a generous serving of skinny French green beans tossed in butter and herbs, asparagus in a too-thick yellow cheese sauce, excellent dark brown oven-roasted potatoes and some deliciously lumpy mashed potatoes.
There are no lunch specials at Sabine River Cafe. If you are looking for something lighter, there are salads and poor boy sandwiches. But of course, I went for the full-on dinner entrées. And after putting away a big portion of rich food like that, the desserts, which included pecan pie, apple pie, blackberry cobbler and Blue Bell vanilla, didn't sound very tempting.
On my second visit, we tried two gumbos for starters. The duck and andouille gumbo came in a remarkably deep-flavored, dark roux. The disappointing seafood gumbo was thin and pale-colored with little seafood and no okra, but lots of celery. Both were served in a cup over rice.
I also tried the shrimp trio, which showcases three of the restaurant's shrimp preparations. The shrimp were medium-sized — I'd guess 24-30 size — and very fresh. The stuffed shrimp, which were fried in a ball of crabmeat stuffing, tasted like a muddle of seafood and breading and were my least favorite. The fried shrimp were tasty, though I am not a fan of butterflied shrimp. I prefer them thick and juicy. The best were the grilled shrimp — three shrimp dusted with herbs, skewered and simply grilled.
My favorite entrée at Sabine River Cafe was grilled redfish with a pecan butter topping. The thick piece of fish was so big, it overlapped the plate. It was moist and perfectly cooked with a touch of grill char, and the topping was rich and satisfying but didn't overwhelm the flavor of the fish.
The fish dishes at Sabine River Grill come blackened, grilled or "pecan planked." You can have them plain or with one of six toppings: butter with pecan pieces, Hollandaise and lump crabmeat, crawfish étouffée, seafood cream sauce with crab and crawfish, tomato-based shrimp Creole, or jalapeño and corn cream sauce.
While I loved the redfish and was glad to see a lighter sauce option like pecan butter, I am getting really tired of seeing the same approach to fish at every Cajun restaurant in the city. Blackened redfish with Pontchartrain sauce was an exciting new idea when Paul Prudhomme invented it 30 years ago. But enough already with the endless repetition — I don't want to choose blackened, fried or grilled, and then pick a crabmeat or crawfish cream sauce.
I want to see what the new generation of chefs can do with fresh fish.
With the exception of the rabbit dishes, the menu at Sabine River Cafe is boring. It looks like an upscale Cajun menu from the 1980s. But what a surprise the food is. It tastes like Cajun food used to, with lots of spice and a homemade quality.
Sabine River Cafe's owner, a balding restaurant-biz veteran named Chuck Krauthamer, spent most of the lunch shift working the grill the second time I ate there. Then he walked around the restaurant greeting customers. When he stopped by our table, he told us he'd once managed one of the original Chili's locations. He said he had also worked in steakhouses, Cajun restaurants and various other operations in his 36 years in the business.
Sabine River Cafe is located in the former space of Wolfgang Puck Express in the Carillon Shopping Center. The interior is upscale-casual, with heavy wooden tables and chairs and sleek curved lines. An exposed kitchen and a wood-burning oven put the cooking on display. There is a small bar off to the side with a big-screen television that always seems to be tuned to a sporting event.
Krauthamer said he's had great luck taking over failed restaurant spaces and turning them into new restaurants, but this one was proving more difficult than usual.
"I am having trouble getting over the Wolfgang Puck Express stigma," he said. Puck's restaurant closed several years ago, so nobody thinks to look at the long-empty space for anything new, despite the fact that it fronts on Westheimer.
Explaining the restaurant's name, Krauthamer pointed out that the Sabine River is the border between Texas and Louisiana. "I am creating a new category I call 'Tex-La,'" he said. "Louisiana food with a Texas twist."
I really like Sabine River Cafe despite the clichéd concept. But I have to wonder: Is Krauthamer clueless, or does he think his customers are?
Brennan's of Houston has published two cookbooks full of recipes for Louisiana food with a Texas twist, one by Carl Walker and one by Randy Evans. And Brennan's of Houston's name for the style, Texas Creole, is a lot better than "Tex-La," which is easily confused with another compound state name, "Texlahoma."
Maybe Krauthamer has never been to Brennan's of Houston (which is still closed after the fire). Maybe he has never had the Tex-Cajun Virgin, the outrageous plate of French fries covered with brown gravy and chile con queso at BB's Cajun Cafe on Montrose. Maybe he has never heard of the Golden Triangle's famous Texas-Cajun-style barbecued crabs. Whatever the case, Louisiana food with a Texas twist has been around for decades.
But don't take my whining too seriously. I suspect that I will be eating at Sabine River Cafe regularly. I am especially looking forward to trying the breakfast menu, which features buttermilk biscuits with gravy and powdered sugar-covered beignets. Hope there's some of that Texas-Louisiana chicory-flavored coffee, too.
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